Warring Democrats were forcing President Biden on Sunday to pick up the pieces of his shattered first-year economic plan for trillions of dollars in new spending and massive tax increases, with liberals saying they had no choice but to remind the White House that its agenda included huge benefits for families and not just cash for roads and bridges to enthuse the centrist wing.
Mr. Biden will promote his agenda in Michigan on Tuesday as part of a take-it-to-the-people tour after a Friday visit to Capitol Hill failed to mollify the factions and delayed a House vote on an infrastructure package that passed the Senate in August.
The delay was a coup for liberals who, hoping to strike before the midterm campaign season, are withholding support for the bipartisan achievement until they see a bill that includes free education, health care benefits and provisions to fight climate change.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, a leading liberal, said Sunday that the White House can bridge the gulf even as Democratic centrists fumed and Republicans likened the infighting to an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”
“All due respect, the media thinks this is the Red Sox playing the Yankees. It is not,” the senator from Vermont told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“This is a long and complicated process, which is dealing with the most consequential piece of legislation probably since the New Deal in the Great Depression. It’s a big deal, and it’s not going to happen overnight,” he said.
Republicans said it probably won’t happen at all. They said Mr. Biden’s pledge to bring common sense and bipartisanship back to Washington is dissolving.
Mr. Sanders and other liberals “are driving the bus, and Joe Biden is just along for the ride,” Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican, told “Fox News Sunday.”
“He surrendered to the radical wing of his party,” Mr. Barrasso said.
It could be make-or-break time for Mr. Biden. His approval ratings have dropped in the wake of the Afghanistan fiasco, and restless Democrats are eager to deliver on his signature campaign promise of rebuilding the country.
For weeks, the president has been unable to negotiate an agreement between liberals, who say the $3.5 trillion social welfare plan is already a compromise, and centrist Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who want a less-costly package.
The White House said Sunday that Mr. Biden will visit Howell, Michigan, to promote his agenda, “which will grow our economy by investing in working families, paid for by repealing tax giveaways to the rich.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, hopes to hold a vote on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill by the end of October. The delay was a sign that liberals were wielding real power.
Their leader, Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, said liberals weren’t necessarily bold but were reminding Mr. Biden of his campaign promises last year.
“There was a Build Back Better agenda that the president laid out to Congress five months ago. It had infrastructure — roads and bridges — but it also had, 85% of it, was around these other important programs: child care, universal child care, paid family leave for 12 weeks for everybody, making sure we’re taking on the climate crisis, expanding health care and, of course, taking on the challenge of giving a path to citizenship for immigrants,” she told CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“We thought we made clear 3½ months ago that the two had to move together because we don’t want to pit roads and bridges against child care,” Ms. Jayapal said.
Mr. Biden said Saturday that it has been difficult to focus on legislation given the impact of hurricanes and Northeast flooding in recent weeks. He didn’t mention the all-consuming military exit from Afghanistan.
“We can bring the moderates and progressives together very easy if we had two more votes [in the Senate]. Two. Two people,” he said ahead of a Delaware weekend of golf, church and a stop at a Wilmington coffee shop called BrewHaHa!
One critical senator, Ms. Sinema, reacted angrily to House Democrats’ decision to delay a vote on the infrastructure package.
“My vote belongs to Arizona, and I do not trade my vote for political favors. I vote based only on what is best for my state and the country,” she said Saturday. “I have never, and would never, agree to any bargain that would hold one piece of legislation hostage to another.”
Underscoring the logjam, Mr. Manchin said any bill must include the long-standing Hyde Amendment ban on federal funding for abortion, while Ms. Jayapal told CNN she wouldn’t vote for a bill that provides for Hyde.
“The Hyde Amendment is something that the majority of the country does not support. One in four women have had an abortion and need to have reproductive care in a very, very important time when those protections are being rolled back,” she said.
The simmering contretemps left Democratic leaders scrambling to reset the narrative. They said the caucus is incredibly diverse and they need time to combine perspectives.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York said the claim of Democrats in disarray is a “silly, phony narrative.”
“We are still in the infancy of Joe Biden’s presidency. And we’ve already done something of enormous significance, and that is the American Rescue Plan. And now we’re working on something of enormous significance in the fall that relates to the infrastructure agreement and the Build Back Better Act,” he said.
A major sticking point is the top-line number of $3.5 trillion in the social welfare package. Mr. Manchin said the price tag is a nonstarter. Other Democrats said they need to focus on what’s in the package and what needs to go instead of being pulled into narratives around the top-line cost.
The White House and Democratic allies say tax increases on the wealthy and corporations will pay for the package.
“It’s important that my constituents know this is not going to add to the debt and deficits. What I think we should be talking about are the elements of the bill, the early childhood education,” Rep. Angie Craig, Minnesota Democrat, told reporters.
“The free community college or trade school, lowering the cost of health care in this country. We have to talk about what’s in. That’s how we develop the ultimate number. It’s not top-down. It’s got to be policy-up,” she said.
Biden adviser Cedric Richmond, touring the Sunday shows, said the price of the legislation will be “zero.”
Fox host Chris Wallace responded by saying, “The fact you’re raising people’s taxes is a cost.”
Mr. Richmond said some in the middle-class could ultimately pay less and the bill’s spending will provide economic dividends down the road.
“At the end of the day, it will cost zero because we’re going to pay for it,” he said. “We’re going to pay for everything we spend here.”
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, who as majority whip counts votes, said he is listening to each member of the chamber, which is split 50-50. Vice President Kamala Harris has the tiebreaking vote.
“As whip, working with Chuck Schumer, we sit down, we look at the priorities, we listen very carefully to every single member. Every vote counts when it comes to getting to this majority,” he said.
He said Mr. Biden and the House speaker will be just as important.
“I mean, never underestimate Nancy Pelosi because I saw her deliver the Affordable Care Act,” he said. “I know the power she has when she gets to work.”
Mr. Barrasso said Mr. Biden and congressional Democrats are holding improvements to roads and bridges hostage as they try to deliver on both bills.
The senator voted against the infrastructure bill but said Mr. Biden would have been wise to get the legislation passed before the disastrous exit from Afghanistan weakened him.
“In any kind of normal world,” he said, “that would have been signed into law by the president.